Am I still on that feckin’ planet?
I went to the movies before Christmas with my youngest son. The film was Interstellar, a science fiction thing with some interesting ideas and themes running through it, but all stitched together by an enduring father and daughter relationship. My wife told me the next day that he’d said I was very quiet at the end of the movie. She wasn’t snitching, just doing her job as part of the parent Mafia, reporting as usual on what the Kremlin watchers were thinking.
By the time you’ve worked your way through a few decades of marriage, there’s a whole shorthand at work. Any remark has a number of layers to it and non-verbal communication doesn’t even begin to cover it. Though you still get that warm cuddle up in the mornings, that doesn’t prevent you from getting a good kick up the backside from them when you need it, no matter in how understated a fashion it’s being done. She often sees stuff I don’t and the reverse applies, but I still choose to reserve my reaction to such revelations, and that’s a part of the space we give each other. An enduring partnership through life involves concessions but never enslavement.
I replayed the aftermath of the “cinematic experience” with him in my head and she was right to reproach me. He’d been excited by the thing, really wanted to talk about it as we strolled back to where I’d parked up the car. I’d been withdrawn and uncommunicative, wrapped up in my own thoughts at the end of it and I’d perhaps denied him that conversation. Long long ago, in a universe far far away, I recall feeling that same starburst of optimism on my first viewing of Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey.
We’ve since had the conversation and as always with him it was an interesting one. I find him very hard to get a handle on, which pleases me in a rather perverse way. Yes, when push comes to shove, I’ve always been their slightly hard-assed Dad but at the same time, I’ve never done dog training. Any fool can do that. You really do have to aim higher or what’s the point. I always wanted them to be a little bit better than me and to go out there and have a good old wrestle with the world. I’ll watch them and wait and be optimistic they won’t disappoint themselves or bruise an old scarred heart.
You do have to keep in touch with popular culture because it deals with mainstream if not cliché ideas, which means it plays to what the ordinary person is thinking, rather than what the self-anointed guardians of their salvation insist they should be thinking. Unlike the elitists, I don’t think people can be led to your particular idea of enlightenment by grabbing them by two fingers up their nostrils and dragging them along unceremoniously.
You may seem to be getting away with it but you’re insulting their common sense and more importantly, their dignity. They always know and silently resent that. What was interesting about the movie was that it had so many ideas which were counter the establishment narrative and indeed a few scenes that grabbed that narrative by the throat and shook it like a rag doll.
A thumb nail sketch of the movie is it’s about a man, a farmer and widower with two children, a boy and a girl. There’s an oblique reference to him having been an astronaut at one time but now the Earth is in trouble because all the staple crops are failing one after another, so there’s no interest in space exploration because the world is starting to starve. He’s trying his best but his father in law tells him he was never supposed to be a dustbowl farmer at the lingering end of the world but his son patently is.
The daughter is the child too much like him, too attached to him. She’ll never be content with being an appendage of someone working the land. She’s the child of your heart and the one you dread. Just too bloody much of the strange and awkward bits of you in them. He sees in her all the restless demons he’s worked so hard to bury by pretending to be satisfied as a farmer; the impatience to explore terra incognita even if it’s off terra, his idea that we were born on Earth but were not destined to stay there. As he expresses it, the Earth has been giving us a message for some time. It’s finally booting us out of the nest.
Like him, she isn’t a good fit in the settle for less culture of the time and never will be; the curse of the restless spirit. He goes to a parent teacher interview and asking about how his son is shaping up to get into college, is told the world needs farmers more than engineers. You can see in his face the restraint being exercised because he already knows in his heart the son loves the soil and he’s accepted that, but when they move over to his daughter and telling him she might need some psychological counselling because she’d brought an old book to school about the moon landings, things get darker. Everyone knows they were faked, he’s told.
The institutionalised triumph of sheer stupidity is staring him in the face across a desk from two educators of his children.
You never find out his reply to that but when he gets home and she asks him with a certain trepidation how it went, he tells her in passing that he’s managed to get her suspended from school. It’s his off-hand way of telling her she’s right and the whole of the school establishment are just irrelevant, because she’s brighter than the whole bunch of them put together, which she actually is – don’t worry about it Kiddo. He long ago realized she’s well out of most people’s league including his, but he’s still her dad, she’s still his kid and he will protect her always. Those two have a very hard-wired direct communication link, a shorthand which leaves no hiding place for either the father or the young child. The emotions between them are simply raw.
From that starting point, the movie splits off into two separate timelines which interconnect like a temporal double helix at times, but they’re both about saving humanity from an Earth that’s dying. Plan A is to crack some sort of anti-gravity theory to enable the mass lift off of humanity into a resource-rich solar system. Plan B is the long shot, the last desperate throw of the dice. It involves packing a few spaceships with the DNA of life on Earth, a few crewmen and firing them at the best guesses of stars which might have planets in the goldilocks zone.
He gets sucked into Plan B because he’s one of the few people left who’s actually been in space. It means leaving her but he promises he’ll return but she’s beyond consolation. He’s betrayed her, abandoned her, and that’s unforgivable in her child’s world. She gets quantum entangled into Plan A because she’s one of life’s blessedly shiny pennies.
I’m not going to do the whole movie. Go and see it for yourself, but his journey is in the venerable tradition of the Odyssey, complete with adventures, ups and downs, near skin of the teeth misses and a few characters of note. There’s even one called Mann who falsifies his research findings, but that’s of course a nod towards Michael Mann the director, rather than any reference to the thrice CPOTY failure.
It is an end of the world movie but surprisingly it’s not us causing that particular event. It touches on the dumbing down of education, of self-sacrifice for not only a greater good but for a fellow crewman, the sort of love that never fades and an optimistic and aspirational view of us as a species. Forget global warming. If you really need to worry about something, one visit from a decent-sized piece of the Oort Cloud, and we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. We do have to get off this rock because all the eggs are in one basket at the moment.
Despite what people might think, progress, however you define it, is a two way street. To my mind, we’ve been going backwards for too many years and perhaps the movie signals a change in popular consciousness.
Anyway, by the time he finally gets back to her, he’s been through the Einstein time dilation loop, which means that although it’s only been a few years for him, decades have passed for everyone else. The child he left behind is now an elderly lady, but revered because she’s the one who cracked the anti-gravity problem that allowed the mass exodus.
They have a conversation but in the end she tells him no parent should see their child die and shoos him from her presence in a hospital bed where she’s holding court surrounded by her own children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s an act of love, reconciliation and unconditional forgiveness of him for not getting back sooner. Just go on now and keep following your star. A simple act of love like that can be devastating unless there’s that massive connection between you both.
The last few minutes show him stealing a ship and I think most probably going to join the only other survivor of plan B, who’s reached another planet and is starting a colony. He’s going to join her but he’ll always be an Odysseus, doomed by his nature to stand up in the prow of a boat and be raged and lashed at by an angry sea but daring everything to find out what’s over that horizon.
After so many years of nihilistic propaganda about our innate human evilness, I went to it with little or nothing in the way of expectations. For a change, a popular box office hit is not about us being the curse, it’s about us being the promise. It genuinely surprised me and it stunned me.
And that’s why I was so quiet.
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